Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Report: Nuclear Power Plants Vulnerable to Terrorist Attacks; POGO Work Cited

Echoing the same concerns the Project On Government Oversight has made over the years, a new study from a University of Texas research group says the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors are not prepared to defend themselves against “credible” terrorist threats.

The paper by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the University of Texas at Austin builds on a history of POGO work and recommends stronger, more realistic security for sites housing nuclear material.

The study, titled “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack” (.pdf), looks at the “design basis threat” which is “a profile of the type, composition, and capabilities of an adversary.” Essentially describing the threat the protective force at nuclear sites are required to defend against, including the number of attackers and what kinds of weapons they might use. The design basis threat is created by information that comes from the intelligence community and is adjusted based on a potential adversary’s capabilities.

POGO has longbeenconcerned about the unrealistic design basis threat at nuclear sites overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The sites house spent fuel and material similar to government research facilities, which are controlled by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration as well as the Department of Defense (DoD). Yet, the commercial sites are not required to protect against the same threats as the government facilities.

In particular, POGO has found that industry pressures and lack of funds have impacted the design base threat at both NRC and Department of Energy sites. In 2004, the Department of Energy’s design basis threat required the protective force to be able to defend against 19 adversaries but when the agency protested that they couldn’t afford adjustments that would be needed for this kind of protection, the number in the design basis threat was reduced to 15. Currently Energy Department-controlled sites are expected to defend against 10 to 12 adversaries while NRC sites are merely required to defend against five. A special operations expert has confirmed to POGO that terrorists would never attack with less than a squad size, which is 12 to 14. Additionally the NRC does not require its sites to protect against rocket-propelled grenades and 50-caliber rifles—two weapons that NRC security staff have long been recommending be added to the design basis threat because of their lethality and how easily it would be for terrorists to obtain them.

The NPPP has built upon the work done by POGO as well as other organizations and experts to create a paper that analyzes the threats these sites face and the differences between the various design basis threats adopted by the three agencies. While the paper does discuss alternatives to the design basis threat approach, it found that these alternatives have their own shortcomings and limitations.

Ultimately, the report concludes that “so long as the U.S. government employs a (design basis threat), it should be the same for all U.S. nuclear facilities—whether public or private—that pose catastrophic risks, whether from theft of nuclear weapons or fissile materials, or from radiological sabotage of a nuclear power reactor.”

This has not only been a recommendation of POGO but also the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In 2007, the GAO sent a letter to the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, pointing to concerns that an unrealistic design basis threat leaves the U.S. vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Unfortunately, there have been no changes made to the design basis threat, and the NRC-controlled sites remain vulnerable as described in NPPP’s paper.

POGO has continued to fight for a more realistic design basis threat in meetings with NRC staff and Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane in the years since, and commends NPPP on their work.